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Love, money and the online dating industry

Dan Slater offers a lively account of the business of online dating, in which a website's happy customer is a lost revenue source.

February 03, 2013|By Emma Jacobs

At the heart of the new book "Love in the Time of Algorithms" is a philosophical question: does the billion-dollar dating industry, whose currency is the perpetual promise of new relationships, signal the death of commitment?

It is the question posed to Sam Yagan, chief executive of free dating website OkCupid, by the book's author, Dan Slater. "That's really a point about market liquidity," replies Yagan, a graduate of Harvard University and Stanford Business School, and a self-confessed "math guy" who says he knows nothing about dating.

Justin Parfitt, a British dating entrepreneur, answers the question more bluntly. The industry is thinking: Let's keep this customer coming back to the site as often as we can, he said, "and let's not worry about whether he's successful. There's this massive tension between what would actually work for you, the user, and what works for us, the shareholders. It's amazing, when you think about it. In what other industry is a happy customer bad for business?"

These responses represent the dissonance between the romantic ideal of love held by many customers and the approach of the entrepreneurial nerds who set up the match­making sites. The disparity is well drawn in this lively book by Slater, a former legal affairs reporter for the Wall Street Journal, who had racked up quite a few of his own cyber dates by age 31, following the demise of a long-term relationship.

A book on the dating industry would be soulless without tales of the customers — the cyber daters. Published by Current, "Love in the Time of Algorithms: What Technology Does to Meeting and Mating" is strewn with stories of blossoming romances, bed-hoppers and borderline sociopaths.

There is Carrie, a single mom in New York, who clicks the box for "full figured," saying that while she is bigger than Kim Kardashian, she is not as big as "big and beautiful." (In the search for love, these things matter.) After several false starts with men who find the "kid thing" a sticking point, Carrie meets her match in a Puerto Rican computer technician who's an atheist.

There is also Jacob in Oregon, who knows he can afford to take things slow with the pharmacist because he can always have sex with another online date. Or, as he likes to think of it: "There's always a pepperoni pizza in the trunk."

The writer delves into his own personal history — his parents met in the 1960s through a pioneering computer dating service. His father's comments, that "these days they're all over the Internet. I think they're mostly for desperate people, though," indicate the stigma that has dogged the industry.

Slater's account of the history of the cyber dating industry — from huge clunky old computers to modern complex computer algorithms — is well detailed. And he brings out the fierce rivalry between free and paid-for sites and the new possibilities for finding a date across the street using smartphones and innovative "freemium" sites.

The stated aim of this book is how online dating is "remaking the landscape of modern relationships," which is an ambitious goal for 240 pages. The sweep is huge: Nigerian scammers preying on the lonely; paunchy middle-aged men trafficking poor young South American and Russian women; math geeks competing for a share of the love market; and adult babies seeking matronly diaper-changers.

The author also brandishes so many ideas — a bit of behavioral economics here, a bit of biological determinism there — that it is hard to focus when so much is competing for the reader's attention. It is a dizzying attempt to demonstrate the author's mastery of the zeitgeist.

In the final chapter, Slater writes that he has tried to avoid "passing judgment on all the many behaviors, new and old, facilitated by the date-o-sphere". Yet this well-reported romp through the digital love marketplace would have benefited from a slightly more domineering author.

Emma Jacobs is a columnist for the Financial Times of London, in which this review first appeared.

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